Interview: Rue Snider
As part of the regular content we’ll be featuring on this site, I’ll be doing interviews with singer-songwriters that I know in the city. The interviews will be music-focused, listening to a recent release of the artist, with questions about the music. This week, we sit down with Rue Snider (website / facebook), a man I happened to run into while we were both on tour in February of 2016 at Kaiju in Louisville, Kentucky of all places. Rue has had a rather prolific past few years, releasing two full albums and two shorter releases (The New New Colossus and Never Met A Girl I Didn’t Love) in 2015 and 2016. Rue has been touring in support of his latest record, Broken Window, which I had the pleasure of listening to this past week before chatting with him.
Andy: You do a lot of traveling and touring compared to most musicians that I know. I guess some of it is that you are able to travel and perform on your own? I know a lot of musicians are navigating the balance between touring more versus doing other things more. What made you decide to dedicate so much effort to touring, and what do you see as the benefits?
Rue: The first immediate benefit that comes to mind is that I get to play in front of people almost every day. I love that so much. I’m starting to feel like I know what I’m doing and come into my own as a performer. That didn’t just happen. I’ve worked really hard at it. I continue to. There was a point where I realized that there was a ceiling to what I was able to accomplish in New York City because of the tremendous amount of distractions and the enormous cost of living. Touring was an opportunity for me to make money and work on the craft of playing guitar and performing night after night with minimal distractions.
What I love about New York is that you can always be in a situation where you aren’t the best performer in the room. I would argue that if you’re playing in New York and you’re the best person in the room then you’re in the wrong room. There is always someone way better. It’s not like that anywhere else that I’ve been. Once I got to the point that I had a seat at the very large table in New York it started to become clear that I was never going to have the time or opportunities I needed to pursue music 100% full time unless I made changes to how I was living.
I’m single with no children so I imagine it was an easier decision for me than for someone with a lot of external commitments. I currently tour solo, like you mentioned, largely because of money, but that means I don’t have to consult or coordinate schedules with anyone else. I’ve learned over time how to present the fully produced songs on my records as a solo performer and not put the audience to sleep. That took work. The plan is to add musicians at some point in the future.
The biggest factor in the decision to tour full time though was a deliberate effort to move past fear. I saw myself getting older and I wasn’t happy. I’m an alcoholic and my life was quickly self destructing. The decision to quit drinking alcohol changed everything about my life. I became very empowered and my paradigm shifted, significantly. There was a period of time where I allowed myself to be confronted by my own mortality. I rethought everything. I got rid of most of the things I owned and put all of my focus and energy into pursuing music as a real career. Part of that was sustaining myself financially from music. The only way I can do that at the moment is by playing shows, all the time. So I do. I picked up management this year and I’m moving with more intention than ever. My ultimate goal is to be on the road 250 dates a year. She and I are figuring out the best way to get there, which may mean some time off the road in the interim.
Andy: Any interesting stories from your current round of touring? Any musicians you ran into that you enjoyed performing with? Clubs you especially liked playing?
Rue: I spend almost all of my time alone. Touring the way I do it is a ton of work. I allow myself several films a week because movie theaters are the only place I can really decompress for a couple hours. People ask me about girls and crazy shit that happens. I’m not being modest when I say that most of the time I try to get out of the gig as soon as I can to go sleep because I have to get up and work for 7 or 8 hours booking shows before driving to the next city and playing another show.
The best part about the road are the friends I’ve made. Driving around playing shows in front of people who often aren’t engaged for very little money is less difficult knowing the wonderful people I get to see along the way. I have friends all over the country now and those relationships grow and the circle gets wider with each trip.
Limelight in San Antonio is my favorite place to play. Deric Wynne who owns it and built the sound system is incredible at his job. It’s a privilege to play in a professional room run by people who really love music. That does’t happen that often for me yet. I just played with a band in Indianapolis called Cyrus Youngman and the Kingfishers. They were incredible. I love a band from Austin called Blue Healer. I’m playing with Claire Kelly in Nashville this week. She makes my heart swoon when she sings. There are so many people I’ve met who are wonderful musicians. I could probably make a list all day.
I’ve had the opportunity to see a bunch of musicians I really admire play outside of New York, which is interesting because you can’t really get a sense of where a band’s career is at when they play in NYC. People who play the Bowery Ballroom might play for less than 100 people other places. It’s been an eye opener. I got to see a secret Shovels and Rope show at the Nashville Palace that literally made me cry. I’ve seen John Moreland shut down rowdy rooms of drunks a couple times with his tragic, dark lullabies. Lydia Loveless saw my set in Columbus, which was a huge thrill for me because I love her records so fucking much. She gave me a hug. I thought my heart was gonna explode. Those kind of things happen and I’m grateful for the life I chose.
Andy: My take on “Broken Window” is that it’s a song about loving someone who isn’t good for you? I’m reminded of Sam and Diane from Cheers. I haven’t finished the series, but I’m told that Sam and Diane never get together in the end because they just aren’t compatible. People get caught up in this idea that the guy and the girl have to end up together, but that can be unhealthy sometimes. Is that what the song is about?
Rue: I made the record Broken Window about getting sober. It moves from nihilism to hope over it’s 36 minutes. The song “Broken Window” is the most nihilistic moment on the record. It’s not about a specific relationship to me. I wrote it on a particularly difficult day thinking about all of the things in life that were kicking my ass. I was feeling very broken and accepted that if something or someone was to break me more it didn’t really matter because it was already too late to put the pieces back together.
Andy: Ahh, okay interesting. So “Blackout” really isn’t ultimately at all fond of your drinking (even though initially it might sound like a happier song). It’s more a narrative explaining your state as part of a journey to sobriety?
Rue: “Blackout” is an alcoholic spinning out of control unwilling to accept his situation and making excuses. When I wrote it I thought people would think it was sad and gross, but they cheered.
Andy: I’m used to seeing you perform solo, but the record has a lot of full-band arranged pieces. Did you record those yourself, or did you work with other musicians to record? Do you write the songs originally on your own – and if so, how is the transition into recording in a full-band format?
Rue: I wrote all the songs on acoustic guitar but they were always intended to be band songs. The acoustic guitars were recorded at a DIY venue in Jacksonville, FL into GarageBand. I called in favors from friends to fill out most of the instrumentation. Jack Ringca recorded the drums in Jacksonville, Craig Kierce played the guitar solos in his apartment in Brooklyn, Amanda Grapes played fiddle in Utah, Beau Mansfield played keys in Oklahoma, and I recorded most of the vocals in my childhood bedroom in Pennsylvania. The pieces were assembled over five days in May by Brandon Wilde at Studio 76 in Brooklyn. He played bass, organ, more percussion, and added some harmonies. We finished up all the songs there. It was very DIY. I think it’s the best sounding record I’ve made. Intention counts for a lot.
Andy: The songs have an auto-biographical tilt to them – I think with certain references to Brooklyn and Manhattan. Are these auto-biographical? I know a lot of songwriters have difficulty putting things that are too personal out in song format for others to listen to. How do you navigate that difficulty? Are these full-on autobiographical and you’ve learned to deal with the potential awkwardness that can bring? Do you take artistic license to lessen the directness?
Rue: This record is about my journey to sobriety. It’s extremely autobiographical. That doesn’t mean that the lyrics are literally true or all about me. “Blue Skies and Telephone Poles” is straight up story about someone else. But the tone and the emotions are hopefully very real and cut deep. I respond to personal songs and the audience I’m carving out seems to as well. I’m writing songs that I would want to hear. I don’t think it’s awkward to be honest and transparent in music. I love it. Liz Phair’s Exile In Guyville comes to mind, or Lifted by Bright Eyes. I’m writing songs about different things right now, mostly politics. But this record came together during my first year of sobriety so I put songs on it in an attempt to move through that story.
Andy: The songs “You’ll Be Fine” and “Crowd Into Trains” come off as a bit of a surprise in the middle of the record. They’re sort of sulking pieces coming after a group of tracks that have a more rootsy feel to them. “Crowd Into Trains” seems thematically similar to OK Computer material. How did they end up on the record? I think it’s a nice turn in the middle.
Rue: Thanks. I was trying to make the album as if it was an actual record with two sides. So “You’ll Be Fine” ends side one, which is the descent into the dark. Then “Crowd Into Trains” begins the journey to the light and eventually to hope. I grew up listening to records, not just collections of songs. Many people have abandoned that and I think that a lot of younger bands put out albums that are more like greatest hits packages of their own material instead of records with a beginning, middle, and end. There was a lot of consciousness and intention behind the track order and in recording songs that fit together but were dynamic and different enough to keep a listener engaged for 36 minutes.
Andy: You decided to release three of the songs “Stories”, “Blackout” and “Blue Skies and Telephone Poles” as singles separately from Broken Windows, how did you go about choosing them? I know I had a similar issue trying to figure out what to release early, it was a little stressful thinking through what to decide on.
Rue: I look forward to being at a point in my career where somebody else makes these decisions. I do not like being involved in the marketing of the music at all. I fucking hate it. I like all the songs. I don’t want to pick the single. But you press on and do what you have to until you don’t have to anymore.
We rebranded all of the social media and built a new website (my manager built the website, I said, “good job”) in the early summer. “Blackout” has an insane fiddle part by Amanda Grapes that takes it in a different direction than anything I’ve else I’ve done. We wanted the first single to surprise people, be short, and make them happy. Never mind that the lyric is the darkest, self destructive thing I’ve written. Fiddle = smiles. “Stories” is the most popular song I’ve written. It’s the one that bartenders at venues tell me they like. It’s the one that gets girls to give me their number. It seemed like an obvious choice. We didn’t want to put it out in the middle of the summer though because people don’t usually listen to ballads in their cars with the windows down. The song that got the most attention from my last record is called “Killing,” which is an Americana, story song about a guy waiting around for the Angel of Death after his parent’s die of tuberculosis on their farm. I have no idea why it landed, but it did. We figured we’d release another Americana, story song as the featured, summer, pre-release single. So, “Blue Skies and Telephone Poles.” It’s about a young man dying of cancer in a small town after his girlfriend leaves him. People love it.